Leadership & the S-Curve of Learning

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Math Functions, Leadership, & Learning

How to use a few mathematical functions to view a new perspective as a leader of your team’s mastery of their work and how to prevent the best on your team from leaving your network.

What is the S-Curve of Learning?

The S-Curve of Learning is a mathematical relationship also known as a sigmoid function. You can look up the Wikipedia article if you’re really a nerd for maths, but for now, you can get by with the simple definition that the curve shows the progression, over time, of adoption. When applied to education or career performance, this curve shows the progression of mastery. The S-Curve of Learning.

Leadership and the S-Curve of Learning
Leadership and the S-Curve of Learning

We are all on this curve somewhere. Everyone one of us is at different locations for the same topic of education. Multiply that by the endless number of things that we could learn and achieve mastery in our lives and careers.

The Beginning

We all start at zero when learning something new. Just like a new product to market, we are out there doing a whole lot of everything and seeing very little progress – which is how it is in our new job or with a new task or project at work. It can be discouraging. But we keep at it and one day, we start to see improvements. We start to “get it.” And confidence builds. As we grow in skills, so too do we grow in satisfaction and engagement.

The Sweet Spot

Competence is what shifts us into the Sweet Spot on our S-Curve of learning. This is the middle phase for us—where things are challenging and fun and engaging. Things are tough, but not too tough; easy, but not too easy. We face challenges and overcome them, and confidence and competence continue to build.

Mastery

As we continue on this journey, there is a point where things will begin to be easier rather than challenging. We encounter fewer true obstacles and the thrill of “the game” begins to wane. Just as in the Beginning, there was this “slog” of working a lot and seeing few returns, similarly, the turn towards Mastery is comparable but less challenging. The great thing is that “we got this” when it comes to challenges—they are easy. But the bad thing is the same… less and less growth and challenge cause a loss of inertia from those successes.

“We’re all equal before a wave.”

Laird Hamilton, professional surfer

Where Are Our Teams?

When you look at this S-Curve from a team leader perspective, you ideally want to see a diversified portfolio of distribution along the curve with respect to each person’s “job.” For all their tasks as a whole, they should fit evenly along this curve similar to the bell-curve:

  • ~ 15% at the Beginning, on their way from Zero to Competence;
  • ~ 70% in the Sweet Spot, increasing confidence;
  • ~ 15% near Mastery.
Bell Curve and S-Curve Diagram
Application of the bell-curve of diffusion of innovations to the S-Curve of Learning, showing the progression of adoption.

With a bell-curve distribution along this S-Curve concept, a team leader will have most of their team in the “sweet spot” engaging themselves with the job itself and overcoming challenges for themselves. Sweet! Those at the Beginning will require our intervention and guidance – we need to teach them and guide them and give them tasks to help them move towards competency. Those at the end? Guess what! They require our intervention and guidance as well! Not to teach as much as to motivate and help prepare them for new S-Curves of Learning for them to stay engaged with our organization and team.

Danger Zones

I see two areas, the Beginning and Mastery, as our Danger Zones. They are dangerous because these are the areas where exist the highest chance that we may fail our team members in ways that cause them to exit. Even though they comprise the minority of our team in an ideal distribution, these two groups really should draw the majority of our attention. Think of the Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule).

Those in the Beginning need training, attention, and time. Without those boxes ticked, new team members may ultimately feel disengaged and unvalued. Two choices exist for them – either they exit our team (high cost to replace and train) or they stay with poor demeanor (high cost to team morale).

Those near Mastery need the proposition of new challenges. As leaders, our goal is to identify these individuals and prepare new obstacle courses, new S-Curves of Learning for their future. Without these new possible futures, the Mastery turns a plateau at the top to a precipice, a cliff to jump off, leaving our organization to start a new S-Curve of Leaning with another team. Sad news!

Questions to Ask & Thoughts to Contemplate

As an exercise, give yourself a few minutes to contemplate all of these questions and thoughts. When you read over something that evokes curiosity and some thought (or you can’t easily answer it), give it room to expand and chase the rabbit down the hole. You and your team will be better for it!

  • If I had to plot on the S-Curve for each of my teams, where would I put them? Why?
  • Individually, where does each team member exist on the S-Curve for their position as a whole?
  • How can I be more involved for my team members in the Beginning?
    • How much time am I devoting to them?
    • Do they have my attention? How obvious to everyone is it?
    • What new concepts or tasks have I personally trained them on?
  • Which team members are nearing Mastery of their position?
    • What’s next for them?
    • What new challenges can we organize for them?
    • Are there new S-Curves of learning?
    • Which areas can we push the goal post further and challenge them to greater performance?
    • Can we shake up the entire sandbox they are playing in (new team members under a team leader, or move an individual to an entirely new team)?

Interested in more? Find where you can connect with me or just read more of my thoughts on leadership, marketing, and multifamily management.

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